June 14, 2012

Narrative is Possibility (a theory)

Here is Vanhoozer's chapter in On Paul Ricoeur, a gem I stumbled across at the TCU library tonight. By the way, Kevin Vanhoozer is so smooth with his words, that even though I still can't begin to explain what Paul Ricoeur's work is about, I feel like I understand it much better. At least, I feel like I understand what Vanhoozer is saying. The main thing seems to be that Ricoeur wasn't necessarily interested so much in better methods for interpreting texts as he was reaching towards a larger philosophical theory of human being and human doing... and that Ricoeur only just so happened to find these two coalescing within the phenomenon of human telling.

Vanhoozer begins by explaining how Ricoeur's theory of narrative brings Immanuel Kant's problems with imagination (and time) into a more substantial and intelligible form by showing human awareness and reconfiguration of temporal existence "at work, as it were, in narrative." ... The plot, the central component of narrative, is nothing less than a creative synthesis of time, which makes a temporal whole out of an otherwise chaotic manifold of experience." At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, K.V. is basically saying that Kant struggled to explain how we represent our basic and complex conceptuatlizaions, and Ricoeur (in effect) provided the answer: mostly we do this by telling stories and histories.

Next, Vanhoozer flashes back in the story of Philosophy to Martin Heidegger's attempt to improve on Kant's work; then V. flashes forward to show how Ricoeur made further progress more effectively along the very same themes. Where Heidegger "extracts from Kant the lesson that time is the condition for our cognition of objects as well as the condition of the being of the objects we cognize", Ricoeur trumps (in Vanhoozer's words), "Of course other things exist in time, but only humans possess the capacity to perceive the connectedness of life and to seek its coherence. Moreover, only humans reckon with their past and future as well as their present."

Where Heidegger discusses selfhood and self-care, and concern for the future in terms of [mere] possibilities for continued existence, and that "possibility is prior to actuality", Ricoeur trumps (again, in Vanhoozer's words) that "human being is not open to such direct inspection" and further declares that it should be more helpful "to reach an ontology of human being by way of a 'detour' through language."

With that pivot point, evidently, Ricoeur launched himself into narrative theory, maintaining focus on what Vanhoozer introduced at the start of his review, by listing as the three cardinal aspects of narrative itself: (1) imagination, (2) time and (3) possibility.

The methodological implications of Ricoeur's narrative theory - for exegesis, for understanding historicality, for more helpfully critiquing heritage and social traditions - these now seem entirely like accidental byproducts. If Paul Ricoeur winds up teaching us how to analyze texts more carefully, or how to think about narrative history more carefully, or how to write (!?) better narratives, even... well, it appears that increasing our aptitudes in such areas was never really his goal. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, the project of Paul Ricoeur  was to understand human existence, and no less.

Three pages before his conclusion, Vanhoozer sums up Ricoeur's project in the following paragraph:
Existence must be mediated by semantics. It is Ricoeur's thesis that we only come to understand human being and human possibilities through an analysis of symbols and texts which attest to that existence. What aspect of human existence is mediated by narratives in particular? Ricoeur believes that narratives are unique in displaying existential possibilities, possibilities for human action and ways of being in or orienting oneself to time. Ricoeur sides with Heidegger in assigning priority to the possible. But contrary to Heidegger, Ricoeur claims that these possibilities are projected only by narratives. Only through stories and histories do we gain a catalogue of the humanly possible. The human condition, determined by and preoccupied with time, is made more intelligible by narrative. What is time? What is human time? Augustine's query receives no adequate theoretical answer. However, narrative offers a 'poetic' solution: intelligibility. Narrative theory thus stands at the crossroads of philosophical anthropology, which deals with the meaning of human being, and hermenutics, which deals with the meaning of texts. Ricoeur answers Kant's query: What is Man? by reading stories and histories which display the whole gamut of human possibilities.
Soak up all the philosophical brilliance, and then soak up what practical brilliance there is, in that paragraph. Read it again, if you wish, and then I will tell you my chief personal takeaway from reading this, Vanhoozer's contribution in the 1991 book, On Paul Ricoeur.

Rougly put, it is this:

No wonder Ricoeur's work has always seemed so enticing and yet so frustrating at the same time! Ricoeur's entire project is primarily deep-minded philosophy that frequently detours into practical methodology. Yes, let me repeat that. No matter how much practical benefit there may be in attending to Paul Ricoeur's narrative theory (and yes I will continue to pursue it, hopefully with greater effectiveness after this point) it is still largely just one man's attempt to play king of the mountain with the titans of history's philosophical playground. ("Not that there's anything wrong with that!")

As strong as his points may be, as helpful as all of it may yet prove to be, what helps me the very most, right now, is understanding that Ricoeur's chief aparatus and strategy was simply in being a Philosopher, above all else. (At least, that's my reconfigured presentation of his ontological temporality. Hope that's not just my own productive imagination. ;-)  )

In all seriousness, this is sooooo comforting. I cannot even tell you. With all due respect, we all know that one *can* in fact "step into the same river twice", and along those same lines there are other times when the most stringent philosophical claims are best met with a shrug if not a loud "bah". Appropriately then, from here forth, I will (sincerely!) both appreciate Ricoeur's brilliance more greatly and also take it with a very large pinch of salt.

I shall also have more fun with it, and be less concerned to "figure it out". After all, Vanhoozer just got it all figured out for me. A last reminder, from his very conclusion: 
That human possibilities are displayed in stories and histories means that Ricoeur's narrative theory stands at the crossroads of his philosophical anthropology and his textual hermenutics. Ricoeur is a philosopher of human possibility, and in this philosophical project literature holds pride of place, for it is by reading stories and histories that we learn what is humanly possible.
Brilliance upon brilliance. 

(Thanks, Kevin!!!)

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton